By Chris Anyokwu
Right from the dawn of memory, oath-taking has always been one of the sacred pillars of society. For instance in ancient times, there was what history records as The Code of Hammurabi (a Babylonian legal text composed around 1755- 1750 BC), imbricating criminal law, family law, property law and commercial law. The term le talionis, i.e., “eye for eye” principle undergirded the ancient roots of the principle of Due process, Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law. The Book of Daniel in the Bible also gives us an account of the Law of Medes and Persia, a legal grundnorm which implies som
ething which cannot be altered. What is an Oath? Taking an oath involves making a solemn promise before an institutional authority or in a manner that involves a divine being (Google.com). This can be expressed variously, namely: “swear an oath”, “take an oath”, “make an oath” or “affirm an oath”.
In scripture, there are several instances of oath-taking. Such is the pervasiveness of the practice in Bible days that, Yahweh, Jehovah God of the Jews, finding no greater authority to swear by, swore by Himself (Genesis 22: 16). In traditional African cultures and societies, people were wont to swear by both animate and inanimate entities. The entire ecosystem of the object world distilled a divine immanence and this immanentism informed the pantheistic nature of nature itself. Hence, following the animist metaphysics of the African world, people truly believed (and still believe) that physical objects housed spiritual powers far greater than what science or Reason could fathom or explain. Accordingly, people swore by trees (e.g. the Iroko/African Teak), rivers (Osun River, Ogun River, River Niger, etc.), gods and goddesses (Ogun, Sango, Amadioha, etc.), their ancestors and foremothers, the earth itself and so forth. To be certain, such was the sacred sanction of oaths that, whenever two people, two parties, say, two friends, two lovers, parent and child, two rivals or even sworn foes swear an oath, it was binding, inviolate, immutable.
It is this ancient practice of oath-taking that governs modern society through what is conventionally referred to as the Social Contract Theory. This theory undergirds the ruler –ruled relationship, a president and the citizenry, a boss and his/her staff, a teacher and his/her pupils/students, a pastor and his congregation and a married couple (remember the “Marital Vows”?). Some people, in order to give fillip to the oath or to deepen its unbreakability get into blood oaths. In this regard, both parties cut their skin open and mingle their blood such that the two blood samples mix together and flow into their bloodstreams. Thereafter, the die is cast; their destinies morph into one. Nollywood is replete with such storylines, notably in matters of romantic love. Again, among the Italian Mafiosi, members of the group do swear to be loyal to the oath of Omerta (i.e., code of silence). Go watch the film “The Godfather” and get a full hang of what this entails. Growing up in my village of Oligie-Igbanke in Edo State, I had witnessed an instance of oath-taking between my female cousin and her estranged boyfriend. My family had kicked against their relationship because of the young man’s less-than-noble family background. In order to put paid to their rendezvous, the elders (those god-like, glum-looking, whispering kolanut-chewing grandees!) had to cause the lovebirds to swear an oath in the presence of a large crowd of onlookers. That was the end of their romance. The penalty for violating this oath was better imagined than actually experienced. To the gods and goddesses of my village (like the Yoruba Ayelala), white is white, black black, no nebulous interstitial in-betweens. This rigid sense of justice and integrity governs cultural and social affairs in my village and, I suppose, all traditional societies the world over. This is abundantly clear in land-dispute adjudication, the settling of marital misunderstandings, the sharing of property among siblings and so forth.
In order to put paid to their rendezvous, the elders (those god-like, glum-looking, whispering kolanut-chewing grandees!) had to cause the lovebirds to swear an oath in the presence of a large crowd of onlookers. That was the end of their romance. The penalty for violating this oath was better imagined than actually experienced. To the gods and goddesses of my village (like the Yoruba Ayelala), white is white, black black, no nebulous interstitial in-betweens.
I was pleasantly surprised when I read Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, and discovered that the inimitable raconteur adroitly incorporates this ancient traditional practice of oath-taking into the plot of the novel. Permit me to set the scene for you. In the preceding passages in the novel, Umuaro and Okperi, two prominent villages, have been at daggers-drawn over the rightful owner of a piece of land. Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu, the superintending deity of Umuaro, has told his clansmen that the land belongs to Okperi, and not Umuaro. Thus, because of his principled stance against his own people, he is treated shabbily like a pariah. While reflecting on all of this, with his youngest son, Nwafo, sitting nearby in his poorly-lit hut, this happens:
“Without changing his fixed gaze Ezeulu began suddenly to talk to Nwafo, ‘A man does not speak a lie to his son,’ He said. “Remember that always. To say My father told me is to swear the greatest oath”. (Arrow of God, p. 93). Therefore, according to Chinua Achebe, the greatest oath a person can make/take is to say: “My father told me.” In those few words hangs the entire ancient traditional African concept of truth-telling, of honesty in marriage, business, relationships, name it!
There is absolutely no room for lying, for, as Niyi Osundare quips: “The mouth as well as the word that proceeds from it demands and deserves respect. To lie, prevaricate, tergiversate, engage in cant, forswear, etc. is to disrespect the word and assault its temple. It is to disrupt the universal order and the truth that holds it in balance-and anchor.”
It is against the foregoing reflections that it is imperative for us to equally reflect on the recently reported murder of an eight-year-old boy (one of a set of twins) by two brothers in Saki, Oyo State. According to Vanguard (15 March, 2022) in an article captioned “Father and 3 sons remanded over alleged kidnapping, murder of 8-year-old boy”; “An Iyanganku Family court in Ibadan has ordered the remand of a father and his three sons at Abolongo Correctional facility over alleged kidnap and murder of an eight-year-old boy in Saki.” On March 3, 2022 at about 12:00 noon when the twin children, one Abdulraheem Bamimore “M” and Abdullahi Bamimore “M” returned from school, Raheem was reportedly lured with mango fruits to an uncompleted building by the suspects (names withheld) and was subsequently given a rat poison and also strangulated to death. Upon interrogation, the suspects confessed killing Raheem, saying that the initial plan was to kidnap him and use him as a bargaining chip with his father to extort a ransom from the supposedly well-heeled man. Asked if he recognised them, Raheem had innocently answered in the affirmative and that had sealed his cruel fate – the suspects had to murder him in order to hush him and also to evade justice. His corpse was said to have been dumped in an obscure location by the father of the criminals in order to shield his children from being identified and probably lynched to death by an irate and incandescent public. Now, this is a very disturbing and bone-chilling incident, and, as such, we are forced to ask: was their father in on the act? Did he directly or indirectly aid and abet his children to indulge in kidnapping for ransom-taking? Have they as a family been doing such heinous things before now, regardless of what we’ve been told so far? Furthermore, we ask: What type of example has their father set for his killer kids? Does he have a criminal record himself? Is his lifestyle exemplary and above reproach? If yes, how come his children love money to the extent that they decided to go into the crime of kidnapping children for ransom despite the universal outrage expressed about this horrible phenomenon? There are a lot of spin-offs to disambiguate and disentangle from the Saki saga.
First off, we are constrained to re-evaluate the age-old Nature-Nurture tussle in relation to the shaping of the individual. Could, therefore, nature and nurture have conspired to create monsters, blood-thirsty ghouls out of the two killers? That is to say, could their genes, the hereditary behaviour-traits plus environmental factors have shaped the boys’ outlook on life, namely, the get-rich-quick mentality? If their father had been a paragon of moral rectitude, of Spartan discipline, chances are the children would not have dabbled in crime. This is what Achebe in The Trouble With Nigeria calls “the power of personal example”. This is analogous to oath-taking, to saying: “My Father told me”. The implication of this statement is that fathers don’t lie, period! A father does not need to swear on or before Ogun or at Sango shrine or on a Bible or Quran to validate his word. His word is his bond, as they say. This iron-clad, ramrod-straight culture of honesty and character (i.e., the Yoruba ethic of Omoluabi) is rooted deeply in the substrata of our cultural imaginary and tribal code of morality. The deities themselves are the unseen judges of human (mis-)conduct, priests and priestesses merely their intermediaries.
Part of the things that fell apart when the wily white man put a knife to the “things” that had hitherto held us together was the utter loss of this ancient practice of honesty based on the injunctions derivable from African Traditional Religion (ATR). Exogenous faiths have brought with them confusion and madness. What we are witnessing today – insecurity, terrorism, armed robberies, kidnappings, rape, money rituals, child/human trafficking, drug addiction, domestic violence and sexual immoralities – are all by-products of our collective abandonment of “our way” (to paraphrase Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons). Now, parental irresponsibility is the order of the day; law-makers and enforcers are right at the bridgehead of lawlessness. A certain DCP Abba Kyari seems to be the most egregious instantiation of duplicity and venality. Kyari reminds me of what Nathaniel Hawthorn says in his novel, The Scarlet Letter: “A man who wears two faces will one day forget the one that is real”. Kyari has, finally, come unstuck and has shown his true face, his true colour. And, as someone said, there is an Abba Kyari in all of us. All have sinned…
Even so, we make bold to reaffirm that the greatest oath a person can make is to say “My father told me. “Father” in this context may be one’s uncle, aunt, mother, brother, elder, leader or neighbour. We know that the case involving the murder of the Saki minor is being investigated by the police and it will be sub judice to pre-empt anything. However, what is beyond dispute, what is clear as day is the fact that an eight-year-old boy has been murdered by two brothers in cold blood. Who in their God-fearing mind does that, except ghouls in human form?
Parents must begin to do a lot of soul-searching and asking themselves hard questions; what are my parental responsibilities? Am I living up to billing? Am I an example of responsible conduct to my children? Are there stuff hidden away in my wardrobe which my children (or even spouse) must not see? Are my hands and conscience clean and right with God? Ask yourself these questions, if you are a parent. As the saying goes, the fruit does not fall too far away from the tree. Show me your father/mother and I will tell you who you are. Our morally-bankrupt society in which home and hearth have gone cold with criminality and the larger society reeling and roiling under a relentless onslaught of crime, there can only be one outcome to it: total collapse of humanity. Thus everyone occupying a position of power and influence must have a change of heart and mind, renounce evil-doing, cruelty, callousness, selfishness and impunity and turn over a new leaf. Nigeria is crying for exemplary leadership both in the homestead and society. Our life, our way of life, is under serious attack, morally and spiritually, and if something is not done to arrest our collective drift towards the abyss, it’s only a question of time, we shall all go under. Did I hear you say God forbid?
*Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.